Paul Delvaux
Biography of Surrealist Artist, Magic Realist Painter.

Pin it

Paintings by Paul Delvaux
are also widely available online
in the form of poster art.

Paul Delvaux (1897-1994)

Belgian painter, Paul Delvaux was associated with the Surrealism art movement, although he never officially joined. Trained at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels, Delvaux's early works were Post-Impressionist and Expressionist in style. In 1934 he saw the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), Rene Magritte (1888-1978) and Salvador Dali, and was converted. By 1937 he was painting in a Surrealist manner, a style he adopted for the rest of his life. Delvaux’s paintings are primarily nostalgic scenes in which women often appear in the nude. The painstakingly detailed nature of his works manages to convey an unreality - a world of his own imagination. Delvaux's combination of photographic realism with unusual juxtapositions and a sense of mystery, places him in the same surrealistic category as Rene Magritte and Giorgio de Chirico - described in 1925 by the German art critic Franz Roh as Magic Realism. Famous paintings by Delvaux include: The Hands (The Dream) (1941, Claude Spaak Collection, Paris), Venus Asleep (1944, Tate Collection, London), and The Great Sirens (1947, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). He is considered an important contributor to modern art of the mid-20th century.

For more biographies of major
modern artists, please see:
20th Century Painters.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.
For the greatest view painters, see:
Best Landcape Artists.
For the greatest portraitists
see: Best Portrait Artists.
For the greatest genre-painting, see:
Best Genre Painters.

For a discussion of the main
aesthetic issues, see:
Art Definition, Meaning

For a list of painters like
Paul Delvaux, see:
Modern Artists.

Artistic Training

Delvaux was born in Antheit, Belgium. Between 1916 and 1919 he studied architecture and decorative painting at the Royal Academy of Beaux-Arts in Brussels. He attended painting classes taught by Constant Montald (1862-1944), one of the key figures in Belgian Symbolism. He was also instructed by Jean Delville (1867-1953), a Symbolist, who was particularly fond of painting landscape. Delvaux's early paintings were primarily naturalistic landscapes and between 1920 and 1925 he completed about 80 such compositions. In 1925 he enjoyed his first solo exhibition. Delvaux's late 1920s works, mainly landscapes and nudes, were strongly influenced by Flemish Expressionist painters such as Constant Permeke (1886-1952) and Gustave De Smet (1877-1943). De Smet was originally a 'Luminist' but moved towards Expressionism and Cubism during the First World War.

Example of Work: The Great Sirens (1947)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

Becomes Surrealist

In 1934 Delvaux encountered Surrealism, notably the works of Giorgio de Chirico, for the first time in 1934, at the Minotaure Exhibition in Brussels. De Chirico was best known for his Metaphysical Painting, created between 1909 and 1919. These rather haunting pictures show city squares and urban architecture cityscapes completely devoid of people. Later De Chirico produced pictures of cluttered storerooms inhabited by mannequin-like figures. Delvaux always acknowledged the influence of De Chirico, stating "with him I realized what was possible, the climate that had to be developed, the climate of silent streets with shadows of people who can't be seen. I've never asked myself if it's surrealist or not". Although Delvaux associated with several Surrealist artists, and his works were included in the 1938 Paris International Exhibition of Surrealism, he resisted being categorized as one. He later said: 'Surrealism! What is Surrealism? In my opinion, it is above all a reawakening of the poetic idea in art, the reintroduction of the subject but in a very particular sense, that of the strange and illogical.'

In 1939 Delvaux visited Italy and was deeply impressed with the architecture in Rome. His love of architecture can be seen in many of his works, where beautiful often nude young women are placed in front of meticulously rendered buildings.

Female Subjects

Fellow Belgian Surrealist, Rene Magritte, was another important influence on Delvaux, although they were not personal friends. There was even a suggestion that Magritte harboured a secret jealousy of Delvaux's drawing ability. Even so, Magritte's mixture of reality and unreality (Magic Realism) greatly appealed to his Belgian compatriot. The paintings Delvaux became famous for were his female nudes and other dressed figures who stare blankly as if in a trance. Sometimes skeletons, or men in bowler hats accompany the women - a theme Delvaux would repeat for the remainder of his life.

The juxtapositioning of objects, people and situations to create a dreamlike setting was something he took from Magritte. From De Chirico, he adopted the use of dramatic settings, classical architecture and receding diagonals. It an almost theatre like fashion, he created a classical world that never in fact existed - but it could have, in a dream, if you could only remember it. In his painting The Great Sirens (1947, Metropolitan Museum of Art) the architecture is reminiscent of Greek temples, but do not represent any known buildings. Several nude women sit and stand, underneath the temple, at night. In the far distance, a man in a bowler hat (a favourite motif of Magritte) is mesmerized by a group of mermaids. The meaning of the painting is not clear, perhaps something to do with love and erotic fantasy. Measuring 6 feet by 9 feet high, it is one of the largest ever executed by the artist. Yet, despite these obvious similarities to the Surrealist group, Delvaux saw himself more of a painter in the realism tradition, following in the tradition of early realist artists like Jan van Eyck (1395-1441), Hans Memling (1430-1494) and others.

For a different style of Surrealism, see Paul Klee (1879–1940), Max Ernst (1891-1976) and Joan Miro (1893-1983).

Mature Career

Delvaux's first retrospective was held at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in 1944. In 1949 he was appointed professor at the Ecole Superieure d'Art et d'Architecture, a position he retained until 1962. Throughout the 1940s he continued to paint nudes situated in night scenes, including his Sleeping Venus (1944, Tate Gallery, London). In this painting a woman lies naked sleeping peacefully in a Greek-style courtyard. A skeleton, a fully dressed woman and another naked figure, surround her. The artist later explained that it was painted in Brussels during the war when the city was being bombed. "The psychology of that moment was very exceptional, full of drama and anguish", he recalled. "I wanted to express this anguish in the picture, contrasted with the calm of the Venus". During the late 1950s Delvaux produced a series of night scenes, in which a little girl watches trains. Not overly Surrealistic, the paintings are nevertheless quite haunting in their illusionary detail. The artist wrote of his paintings: "Each subject was preceded by long, elaborate work before achieving the harmony and balance that I tried to put in it... First, through the architecture the painting includes, and next, because of the choice of colours that related to the poetic expression that one wants to give it." See also the Canadian Magic Realist painter Alex Colville (b.1920).

During the 1950s and 1960s, Delvaux produced a number of mural commissions and created his first works of lithography. Retrospectives of his work were held in 1965, at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille, in 1969, at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris, and in 1973, at the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen in Rotterdam. This was followed by retrospectives at the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo and the National Museum of Modern Art of Kyoto in 1975. In 1977 the artist became an associate member of the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris. Because of failing eyesight, Delvaux stopped painting in 1986 and died eight years later in 1994.

Delvaux's painting Le rendez-vous d'Ephese (1967) sold for $1,292,000 at auction in 2008, at Christie's London. A watercolour, pen and ink drawing by the artist, Woman at the Lamp (1973), sold at Christies New York, in 2010, for $56,250. His works can be seen in several of the best art museums on both sides of the Atlantic.

• For more biographies of important modern artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For details of significant art movements, see: History of Art.
• For our main index, see: Homepage.

© All rights reserved.